In the middle of the night, in the middle of my baby’s fourth trimester, I sat on the floor cradling him. His colicky cries drowned out the massive snores from my husband down the hall and the thoughts in my brain. No matter how I tried, my infant couldn’t be soothed. Feeling all the feels, I recognized inklings of guilt, pockets of sadness and frustration, and one emotion I hadn’t expected: loneliness.
My overtired brain said it was 4 a.m. and after some sleep, I’d feel better. Usually, my brain was right about these things, like the time it stopped me from eating all the cheese in the refrigerator after that breakup. But even after I slept, I noticed the same hollow feeling in my chest later that day. And then again, the next day. And then the day after that. My newborn and I were constantly together, so why was I lonely?
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Laurel Sims-Stewart, a therapist and Community Outreach Director at Bridge Counseling and Wellness, explains that the depth of isolation when caring for a newborn can be unexpected and trigger feelings of loneliness. “Having experienced the loneliness of being a new mom myself,” she begins, “I knew I’d be sleep-deprived and maybe overwhelmed, but I wasn’t prepared for how separate I felt from the world.” With a sleep-deprived, baby-focused brain leading the way, this can make it even tougher to describe your feelings. “It’s not always isolation in the physical sense, but an emotional isolation, a loneliness of identity,” Sims-Stewart explains.
During my son’s difficult first months, I wasn’t able to articulate my loneliness, either. When I did remember to mention feelings of emptiness to my husband, I stopped. My guilt kept me silent, and I wasn’t even sure why. Megan B. Bartley, mental health and mindfulness coach, says that it’s not uncommon to romanticize motherhood. “Moms can feel societal pressure of what they ‘should’ be doing ‘right’ or ‘well.’ It’s a lot of pressure,” Bartley says. This romanticizing leaves little room for honest feelings to come forward and can keep a mama stuck in guilt, embarrassment, or fear and leave her incapable of discussing her loneliness. (To note: these feelings can also signal postpartum depression, so please don’t hesitate to mention them to your doctor if you suspect something beyond loneliness is going on.)
For the most part, though, feeling lonely while momming is normal. “This is a brand-new experience, even if it’s not your first child,” Sims-Stewart reassures. In many cases, when it comes to caring for a newborn, there are some tasks only the mom can do. “There’s a very real feeling of isolation that can come from that,” Sims-Stewart says. Compounded with feeling physically isolated from your partner or usual schedule, an emotional component lurks deep. This stems from the process of matrescence (the physical, emotional, hormonal, and social shift into motherhood), which Sims-Stewart explains like this: We go through so many changes as we become mothers that we can often feel isolated from ourselves — the person we thought we were before that shift.
Being a mom means less sleep, watching your heart walk outside of your body, and making more snacks than you ever thought possible. Does it also mean experiencing loneliness throughout your entire motherhood journey? “I do think it’s common to feel a sense of loneliness and loss at every phase of a child’s life,” says Sims-Stewart. Each stage your child goes through brings its own set of emotions. Feelings of loneliness can ebb and flow through it all.
Wendy Hall, the mother to 3 boys, says as her kids became teenagers a different type of loneliness sprang from long days apart. “When they first go to high school, the days are much longer — especially if they participate in extracurricular activities,” Hall says. As her kids grew, she talks about feeling more isolated from their day-to-day experiences. “I felt like I didn’t know all the details of their lives,” she says. Not only that, but when kids get to be that age, Mom is no longer at the center of their universe.
While it’s developmentally appropriate for tweens and teenagers to individuate (achieve a sense of individuality) from their parents and families, it doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate for us moms to feel a sense of loneliness and/or loss during this stage. “As parents, we often have to grieve that transition from totally dependent child to a more independent being,” says Sims-Stewart. And Bartley says it’s normal to grieve the loss of previous stages; she advises that the transition may be easier if we just keep in mind that our kids’ independence is a natural and normal part of growing up.
One way Hall found to support herself was by talking about her feelings. “I was lucky to have the most supportive and accepting family,” she says, and expressing her emotions with trusted friends made all the difference. It’s good to note that it’s possible to find a balance between speaking your truth and maintaining your teen’s privacy. Keeping your emotions bottled up might serve to amplify feelings of aloneness. So, when you need to speak your heart and keep your teen’s confidentiality, Sims-Stewart says it’s not necessary to share the gritty details of your teen’s life to connect with friends. “Just remember to keep the focus on your own experience and emotions,” Sims-Stewart advises. This is also a wonderful opportunity to seek out therapy, because a therapist is bound by confidentiality, Bartley suggests.
Whether you’re experiencing loneliness in the beginning stages of motherhood or somewhere in the middle, there are supports that can move you through these feelings. Bartley suggests getting connected with friends or a moms’ group — either in person or online. “You won’t feel as lonely if you know there are people you can turn to, who get you and are going through something similar,” she says. Then as your child grows, remember to take time out to stay connected. “Connection is key. We need others in our lives to help regulate our emotions and ground our thinking,” Bartley explains.
Another way to find support, reduce stress, and lessen those lonely feelings is to seek out ways to express yourself. “Find a safe way to express how you feel, either by talking, writing, or art-making,” Sims-Stewart says. “Create space for yourself to be a whole human with a full range of emotions.” Once you’ve reconnected to all the colors in your emotional palette, take time with your feelings and offer yourself compassion. “You likely wouldn’t tell a friend or loved one that they shouldn’t feel sad or lonely, nor would you get mad at them for feeling that way,” she reminds.
The loneliness I felt as a new mom wasn’t consistent — a lot like my newborn’s sleep habits. I noticed the feelings creep in during times of big transitions, after long days of parenting, or when I’d avoided giving myself a hot minute of downtime. Now, eight years into this motherhood thing, I understand that loneliness is just a part of my momming experience. The difference is, the guilt I once had surrounding it was thrown out with my kid’s last diaper. Now, I’m intentional about sharing my thoughts and emotions. “It can be so helpful to have other adults that can offer support and remind us that we are mothers but we are also multifaceted people whose lives have the potential to be full,” says Sims-Stewart, “Both because of our children and in addition to our children.”
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